Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Major New Meta-Study of Social Media and Mental Health

From the NY Times summary of this study:

While a few researchers have claimed that digital technology is a powerful, causal factor in the rising rates of mental health problems, others have countered that the risk of harm for most teenagers is tiny — about the equivalent influence on well-being as wearing eyeglasses or regularly eating potatoes, one group calculated.

Now, the authors of the eyeglass paper have published a large, multiyear study providing what independent experts said was an unusually granular and rigorous look at the relationship between social media and adolescents’ feelings about life.

Analyzing survey responses of more than 84,000 people of all ages in Britain, the researchers identified two distinct periods of adolescence when heavy use of social media spurred lower ratings of “life satisfaction”: first around puberty — ages 11 to 13 for girls, and 14 to 15 for boys — and then again for both sexes around age 19.

Like many previous studies, this one found that the relationship between social media and an adolescent’s well-being was fairly weak. Still, it suggested that there were certain periods in development when teenagers may be most sensitive to the technology.

I don't know what to make of this debate. This paper, it seems to me, accurately summarizes the science we have on the issue: social media use can't be shown to have major impacts on mental health. But given that the mental health of teenagers has gotten a lot worse, what else could be causing it? Have maybe phones and social media gotten so ubiquitous that we can't actually tease out their effects? Or is there something else going on we can't put our fingers on?

Kerkouane, a Carthaginian Town

I found a book in the public library that lists all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and have been perusing it in search of treasures. I have bookmarked several interesting-sounding places I had never heard of, so expect some blogging about these in the coming weeks. One that caught my eye was Kerkouane in Tunisia.

Kerkouane is noteworthy, says UNESCO, in that it is a Carthaginian town not overlaid by later Roman, medieval, or modern settlement, hence very well preserved. The site was discovered in 1952 by a French archaeologist who was surf fishing when he noticed potsherds eroding from the shore. (I have been scanning eroding banks for similar discoveries all my life but sadly have none to report.) After independence in 1956, Tunisian archaeologists looking for a suitable project decided to mount a major dig here, perhaps as a gesture against European imperialism. 

These overhead views show the extent of the excavation. 

You can see that the layout included wide streets and public squares. Which seems obvious to us, but they had after all to be invented; Neolithic towns did not have them. One of the unsung achievements of Middle Eastern civilization.

The ancient historian Polybius tells us that during the First Punic War, around 255-250 BC, the Romans attacked the city of Apsis not far from Kerkouane:

Landing there and beaching their ships, which they surrounded with a trench and palisade, they set themselves to lay siege to the town, the garrison of which refused to surrender. (..) The Romans, after making themselves masters of Aspis (..) hastily advanced with their whole force and set about plundering the country. As nobody tried to prevent them, they destroyed a number of handsome and luxuriously furnished dwelling-houses, possessed themselves of a quantity of cattle, and captured more than twenty thousand slaves, taking them back to their ships.
It seems that Carthaginian coinage changed drastically in the 240s BC, and during the excavations at Kerkouane no coins were found of the later type.  So the theory is that Kerkouane was abandoned because of this Roman attack or something else that happened during the war. The dates line up but archaeology produced no evidence that the town was sacked, so it remains a theory.

Kerkouane was a small town, probably home to around 1,200 people. Most of them would have been fishermen and craftsmen. Middens of murex shells suggest they made the famous purple dye, and there is also evidence for making salt, pottery, and garum, the infamous Mediterranean fish sauce. There was at least one temple (the thing with columns), but no ceremonial center was found.

The public baths.

And what is claimed to be a private bathtub but is more likely a cistern. (One of my hobbies is reconstructing what tour guides say about ancient sites from the captions tourists put on their photos.)

This ship ramp was the only evidence of the harbor.

The shape of the larger houses was the one familiar to us from all around the Mediterranean, with the rooms grouped around a central atrium. There are three on the small snippet of the site plan I reproduce above.

The biggest and most famous house. The House of the Sign of Tanit, had mosaic floors that were mostly just patterns but with the emblem of the goddess Tanit picked out (above and top).

A cemetery of the same period was discovered nearby, and most of the artifacts in the local museum came from there. These are tombstones.

There was a time in my youth, I think in high school, when I hated the Romans for conquering everyone and imposing their standardized culture on so many diverse people. So I made the Carthaginians into my heroes for opposing Romanitas, cheered their victories and mourned their eventual defeat. I soon figured out, though, that the Carthaginian Empire was every bit as brutal as the Roman – maybe more so, since the Romans' Italian allies mostly stayed loyal during the Punic Wars, while the Carthaginians' subjects rebelled whenever they got a chance. But I retain an interest in their ways as a different side of the Mediterranean world, and a different future that came within a few storms and battles of becoming real.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Refugees and the Difficulty with Having a Country

The New York Times brought some of their people together to talk about Ukraine, and the interesting thing that came out of it for me was their consensus that the Russians are intentionally creating millions of refugees as a way to put pressure on Europe:

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: I want to turn to the refugee crisis, because as you have mentioned — all three of you — this is the third front of this war, where people are being killed and displaced by Russia in order to change the course of the war. It’s estimated that nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been displaced by the invasion, including half of all Ukrainian children, and three and a half million of those people have left the country entirely. And we know that in recent years immigration has been a really fraught topic in Europe.

Tom, you have talked about the pressure this influx of refugees will put on European countries and how it might be part of Putin’s strategy to fracture NATO’s response to the invasion. Do you think that Europe can continue to absorb these numbers? The United States has said that they are going to be admitting 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but that’s a drop in the bucket.

Thomas L. Friedman: It’s a real problem. We live in an age where it’s just harder and harder to be a country, to hold together as a country. And we see the stresses and strains on weak and frail states now and in places like the Middle East. I point to Lebanon, which has received a huge influx of refugees from the Syrian war, which the Russians were also involved in. These kinds of pressures on countries at a time of climate change, at a time of economic stress, they make it very hard just to be a country in general. Then add on that suddenly the pressure of having to absorb not 100,000 but several million refugees all at once, many of them women, children and elderly — not working males, because they’ve stayed behind in Ukraine. And you have just enormous pressure.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: At the same time, though, there is massive public support of Ukrainian refugees right now. Farah, what was the sense you got from your recent trip to Poland about the continuing appetite to support them? Do you sense that there’s a sell-by date?

Farah Stockman: I saw a huge outpouring that was in many ways unexpected. A lot of Ukrainians living in Poland have experienced discrimination. They tend to work low-wage jobs. And they said Polish people tended to look down on them.

But all of a sudden, as soon as Russia invades, they were welcomed. And they were seeing Ukrainian flags flying from the Warsaw city hall. C.E.O.s and software developers were taking off work and going to the border and offering people rides and putting people up in their homes. So there has been this extraordinary outpouring, partly out of gratitude. I think Polish people know what it’s like to be invaded by Russians. And they were happy that the Ukrainians were putting up such a fight.

But I do think there could be a sell-by date. The mayor of Warsaw told me that he’d been getting calls from people who said, I put these Ukrainians up for a couple of days. Where should I take them now? What should I do with them now? So it’s going to require a huge effort. And in Poland, it’s very polarized there, just like it is here. The city of Warsaw is liberal, and the government itself has historically been very anti-immigrant and more far right.

So it’s going to be a challenge for Poland to navigate this. Right now they’re holding it together and putting on a united front to face the crisis. But a year from now, or two years from now, I wonder what it’s going to look like.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Poem: A Road Near Bucha, Ukraine, March 1, 2022

Foreshortened in the harsh late winter light
the blackened wrecks seem smashed together,
burned out nose to blasted tail,
tanks and trucks and broken men
strewn litter-like across the buckled road to Kyiv.
The stench of burning rubber overlays the smell of human blood.

No helpful witness tells the story, who won the battle, who lost the war.
But look, all is written out for you to read,
a tale set down by Satan's scribe in hell's unholy alphabet;
your nightmares can read them if your day eyes cannot.
Turretless tanks stand for pride undone,
blackened metal for the cleansing fire.
Dead men stand for dead men.
The signifier is the signified, and both are infamy.

Listen—someone's coming down the road.
Take shelter here behind this corpse
hanging halfway out the hatch of an upturned IFV,
and we will see if this is enemy or friend. 

But nothing one expects to see in Bucha shows its face,
not a soldier or a stunned civilian,
not a cameraman who wants our reactions
for human interest on the six o'clock news.
A pale horse picks its careful way along the blacktop,
Calm and stately, patient as time. It rider's face is cloaked in gray.
It makes no sign of noting or caring
as it steps through history
past severed legs and shards of shattered iron.

Nearer and nearer, slow and relentless,
stalker of battlefields, angel of death. 
Who will ask questions
when answer was given
long before any
who died here were born?

Once upon this very road other tanks fought other men,
sickle and swastika, battles like earthquakes.
Behind them trace the hoofprints back
to men with muskets wreathed in smoke,
cannons roaring, horses rearing;
behind them yet farther to Tatars and Rus,
to nameless steppes riders who conquered the westlands
leaving their languages sweet on our tongues.

The gray-covered rider raises its standard,
showing its symbol to living and dead.
Not a skull, not a sword, but Ouroboros, tail in mouth.

Master of serpents, circle unending,
lord of oblivion, king of the deep.
Long have we seen you, woven in woolen,
painted on velvet, tattooed on skin.
Now yet again we write your story,
this time with javelins, stingers and drones,
this time with Slavic men in tanks and rockets like meteors.

The letters are new but the words are unyielding.

Life devours itself.

–John Bedell, 3/27/2022

20th-Century Middle Eastern Art at Sotheby's

Fahrelnissa Zeid, The Blue Tree, 1943

Inji Efflatoun, The Harvest, 1966

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 1980s

Salah Yousri, The Time of the Laborers, 1966

Asaad Zakari, Untitled, 1970s

Peybak, Orient #1, 2015

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Kaveh Akbar, "Soot"

Sometimes God comes to earth disguised as rust,
chewing away a chain link fence or a mariner's knife,
From up so close we must seem
clumsy and gloomless, like new lovers

undressing in front of each other
for the first time. Regarding loss I'm afraid
to keep it in the story,
worried what I might bring back to life,

like the marble angel who woke to find
his innards scattered around his feet.
Blood from the belly tastes sweeter
than blood from anywhere else. We know this

but don't know why—the woman on TV
dabs a man's gutwound with her hijab
then draws the cloth to her lips, confused.
I keep dreaming I'm a creature pulling out my claws

one by one to sell in a market stall next to stacks
of pomegranates and garden tools. It's predictable,
the logic of dreams. Long ago I lived in Heaven
because I wanted to. When I fell to earth

I knew the way—through the soot, into the leaves.
It still took years. Upon landing, the ground
embraced me sadly, with the gentleness
of someone delivering tragic news to a child.

From Calling a Wolf a Wolf, 2017


Italy has 15,000 abandoned villages and thousands more than have lost more than 90% of their people since 1900. One of the most famous is Craco, in the arch of the boot. 

The town's demise began during the great era of Italian emigration; 1,300 people left for North America between 1892 and 1922. The shrunken population was not able to keep up the infrastructure, and  in the 1960s a series of landslides carried away several buildings and the main access road, allegedly because water leaking from pipes saturated and weakened the soil.

The whole region has partially depopulated, leaving a landscape that looks like this.

After a 1980 earthquake, the authorities declared the whole town unsafe and evacuated the remaining inhabitants. Since then people have returned a few times a year for religious festivals, and of course the place has become a destination for fans of ruins and ghost towns.

The town is said to have been founded in the 6th century AD, and is definitely attested by 860. It was ruled by Byzantines, Normans. the Sforza family, and others before becoming part of the Kingdom of Naples.

Now it slowly returns to the hills from which it came.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Shards of Reality

Russian generals holding a briefing in front of a map of Ukraine that western analysist think is badly wrong. Polina Ivanova summarized part of the briefing like this:

Russia had never intended to capture Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities, the generals said - these are not setbacks in other words, it's all part of the plan. And the plan was to distract Ukrainian forces while Russia/ Donetsk/ Luhansk made territorial gains in the east.

This inspired a lot of tweets along the lines of:

Japanese combined fleet: we never intended to take Midway. Phase I was a complete success.

Funeral notices coming out of Russia confirm that the 331st VDV (air assault) regiment, heavily engaged since the first day of the war, has lost its commander, deputy commander, and two of its four battalion commanders. Losses among the troops seem equally high. The photo above shows the funeral of five men of the regiment, held on March 21.

Vladimir Putin takes on cancel culture:

With the full connivance and sometimes with the full encouragement of the ruling elites, the infamous cancel culture has turned into the cancellation of culture. Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov are being removed from concern programs. Russian writers and their books are being banned as well. The last time we had the destruction of so much unsuitable literature was 90 years ago under the Nazis in Germany. We know and remember very well the footage from film archives of books being burned. Not long ago children’s writer Joanne Rowling, whose books have sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world, was cancelled because she displeased the advocates of so-called gender freedoms. Today they are trying to cancel the whole county with a thousand-year history, our people.

Rowling responds:
Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance,
Some thoughts from satirist Darth Putin:
Because the US invaded Iraq, which was wrong, it means that anything Russia military does is by definition not wrong. Western military intervention causes misery & terrorists. Russian military intervention causes joy & unicorns.

A secure international border has Russian troops on both sides of it.

If NATO supplies coming into Ukraine were marked "children", our Air Force might be able to attack them.
A random assemblage of words from the war:

Our city is being destroyed from the face of the Earth,

–Vladyslav Atroshenko, Mayor of Chernihiv

We have a good life, We must be able to defend it.

– a Lithuanian doctor to the NY Times

Thirty kilometers from here, democracy ends.

– Danish Col. Peter Nielsen, NATO commander in Vilnius, Lithuania

Kyiv is being bombed and we realized this is probably the only such real chance — the last chance — to win back Belarus, protect Ukraine and actually make this world a better place.

–A Belarussian volunteer, in exile since 2020, fighting for Ukraine

We have no choice. They are fighting for us.

– Lithuanian man who donated his SUV to Ukrainian forces

"I'm f*cking sick of it all. I don't know how I'm going to come home and how I'm going to sleep. Can you imagine what sort of memories I will have?"

– Intercepted phone call from a Russian soldier in Ukraine

God takes the very best ones.

–Ukrainian mother after burying her two sons six days apart

NOTHING IS HAPPENING. Walk on by. A special operation is underway. No one is growing poor. The economy is growing.

–Headline in a small town Russian newspaper, March 25

The hunt for traitors now endangers virtually everyone in Russia.

– Kevin Rothrock

We are in the middle of the longest, saddest, most excruciating and unsatisfying "In told you so" in the history of the world.

–Michael Bond

I hate them all. I have no pity even for the civilians. . . . we had no choice—if we didn't bomb them, they would've bombed us. . . . My son fought for us, for Russia...he didn't die in vain.

– Mother of a dead Russian soldier says of Ukrainians

Not have a home, to have nowhere to go back to, it’s very scary. Kharkiv is gone now. They erased it.

–Refugee schoolgirl in Vienna, Austria

Russia was bent on violence from the start.

–Joe Biden

We will fight to the end. We will not give up and we will not be defeated. . . . It will be victory when weapons fall silent and we can hear people speak freely again.

–Volodymyr Zelensky

Friday, March 25, 2022

Links 25 March 2022

Canova, Recumbent Magdelen, 1822. This once famous sculpture was somehow lost and ended up serving as a garden ornament in England. Now that its identity has been recognized it is likely to sell for at least $6.5 million.

Andy Warhol was right: Trent Trelenko, the guy who wrote that post about Russian military tires, is now a talking head on the television news. 

And Trelenko is back on Twitter with another thread, this one about the attrition of Russian trucks; his conclusion is that by the end of April Russia will not have enough trucks to even minimally supply its forces, dooming them to inactivity. Amusing that army mechanics see a lot of damage done to vehicles when the drivers come under fire and try to cross ditches etc. to escape; they call this response "Punch it Chewy." As in, "Yeah, they did a real Punch it Chewy on this truck."

The sad story of Afghanistan's last finance minister, now an Uber driver in Washington, DC. (Washington Post)

Chinese archaeologists claim to have found the Jinxia Academy, a sort of think tank of the Warring States period where noted Confucian philosopher Mencius worked.

Archaeologists announce that a feature at a Carthaginian site on the island of Motya off Sicily was not a harbor but a sacred freshwater pool surrounded by temples, something well known in the Phoenician homeland. The mistake happened because the area had sunk several feet and filled with salt water; the whole western coast of Italy and Sicily is prone to rising and falling in this way as the African and European plates grind together far below the surface.

Unusual offerings found at Aztec temple: starfish from the Pacific coast.

Amazing 30-second time-lapse video of the port of Amsterdam.

In some parts of Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers have dug up Russian corpses to trade for living Ukrainian prisoners. Westerners have been baffled that Russian commanders have made so little effort to recover their dead, but some Russian officers care a lot, hence these clandestine deals.

One major strand of thought among Russia's leaders is "Eurasianism," an old idea that Russia's destiny is to lead a Eurasian empire uniting Slavs, Mongols, Turks, and others against the Atlantic world. (NY Times, wikipedia)

Behind the shocking story of a homeless man attacking and killing other homeless men, the NY Times finds a sad tale of mental illness. Once again we encounter this line: "he went on and off his medications." And "He didn't want to be committed but he wasn't in his right mind."

The "ozone hole" seems to be gradually closing, in line with the decline in CFC emissions, which is why you never hear about it anymore. Of course it was never certain that the ozone hole was caused by CFCs, but since CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases it's a good thing we got rid of them regardless.

An American "New Right" forms under the banner of Tucker Carlson. (Washington Post)

The BBC has a "Reading Russia" twitter feed about what the Russian newspapers say, and they note that while the press won't use the words "war" or "invasion" their stories look like war stories, and they constantly compare this fighting to World War II, the last time Russians fought around Kyiv. The Russian public may be misled about the causes of the war but they are getting the message that it is a serious fight.

The Institute for the Study of War explains what they mean when they predict "stalemate" in Ukraine, and what may happen in the war moving forward.

If the US government really wants to hurt Russia economically, what they should do is roll out a big welcome mat for the 100,000 Russian tech workers who want to leave.

Short video of the night sky on Mars.

Excavating a late Roman burial ground in the South of France.

Extraordinarily detailed scan of Fra Mauro's world map, c. 1450.

Genetic study connects contemporary members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in the San Francisco Bay area to Californians who lived 1500 years ago. But weird wording in the article suggests they are mostly a mix of European and Mexican. (Article, popular summary)

Consider how much effort people put into applications for grants, prestigious scholarships like the Rhodes, and so on, most of which are unsuccessful (Rhodes, 99.3% rejected; NIH research grants, 79% rejected). Is there any way to limit this gigantic waste of human resources?

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Museum Postcards

My office wall. And this from Alain de Botton and John Armstrong:

Largely on grounds of cost, most people don't buy art in galleries. The chief vehicle for selling art on any mass scale is the museum gift shop. This is quite simply the most important tool for the diffusion and understanding of art in the modern world. Though it appears to be a mere appendage to most museums, the gift shop is central to the project of art institutions. Its job is to ensure that the lessons of the museum, which concern beauty, meaning and the enlargement of the spirit, can endure in the visitor far beyond the actual of the premises and be put into use in daily life. . . .

Postcards are successful and important mechanisms for improving our engagement with art. Our culture sees them as tiny, pale shadows of the far superior originals handing on the walls a few meters away, but the encounter we have with the postcard may be deeper, more perceptive and more valuable to us, because the card allows us to bring our own reactions to it. It feels safe and acceptable to pin it on a wall, throw it away or scribble on it, and by being able to behave so casually around it, our responses come alive. We consult our own needs and interests; we take real ownership of the object and, since it is permanently available, we keep looking at it. We feel free to be ourselves around it, as so often, and sadly, we do not in the presence of the masterpiece itself.

From Art as Therapy, a weirdly fascinating book that argues we should forget about understanding art as history or aesthetics and instead approach it according to what it can do for us emotionally.


Above, daffodils in my garden; below, cheery trees and others in Washington, this week.